Epic disasters — the anguished cries, the stories of heroism — are the central narratives of our age, both enthralling and horrifying. And our obsession began a century ago, unfolding in just 160 terrifying minutes, on a supposedly unsinkable ship, as more than 1,500 souls slipped into the icy waters of the North Atlantic. And the band played on.
It was the Titanic. And ever since, we’ve been hooked on disasters, in general — but the tale of the great luxury liner, in particular. And the approaching 100th anniversary of the sinking on April 14-15, 1912, has merely magnified the Titanic’s fascination.
There were catastrophes before that fateful Sunday night, but nothing quite captivated the newly wireless-connected globe’s attention. It was more than news. It was a macabre form of entertainment.
Bigger, deadlier disasters followed, but they all borrowed from the story lines — morality plays, really — established by the Titanic’s sinking: The high-profile investigations … wall-to-wall news coverage … issues of blame, technological hubris, ignored warnings and economic fairness — all were themes that played out in the BP oil spill, the space shuttle disasters, Hurricane Katrina, the Exxon Valdez and the recent grounding of the Costa Concordia.
“The story is ageless, like all great stories,” said James Delgado, director of maritime heritage at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “The elements in this case of triumph, tragedy, and hubris, of bravery and cowardice, all wrapped up in one brief moment. That speaks to people.”
And to this day, The Titanic is big business in movies, books, songs, poetry and museum exhibits hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean. Dozens of tourists have paid tens of thousands of dollars to dive in Russian submersibles to visit the ship and see the ocean floor “where the Titanic dug in and the ship created this knifelike sharp edge,” Delgado said.
For decades that burial spot was unknown, but the discovery of the Titanic in 1985 brought the disaster back to the world’s attention.
The 882-foot long Titanic steamed from Queenstown, Ireland, on April 11 toward New York, carrying more than 2,200 passengers and crew, more than 130,000 pounds of meat and fish, 1,750 pounds of ice cream, 400 asparagus tongs and only 20 of the 32 lifeboats designed to be on board. The ship ignored more than 30 different ice warnings. At 11:40 p.m. on April 14, the Titanic hit an iceberg and stalled. At 2:20 a.m., it sank.
The public, especially in the past century, has become increasingly fascinated with disasters. With Titanic, the story lines played out instantly thanks to the recent innovation of wireless telegraphy. Even before the Carpathia arrived in New York with survivors, the “story starts to get told in a particular way before there is any substantial information about what happened,” said Harvard University professor Steven Biel, author of “Down with the Old Canoe: A Cultural History of the Titanic Disaster.”
Survivor Lawrence Beesley, in his book “Loss of the SS Titanic,” said many press reports made the sinking even more dramatic than it really was. “The fact is that the sense of fear came to the passengers very slowly, a result of the absence of any signs of danger.”
Beesley and others talked about how no one at the time thought the Titanic was going to go under. At first, they joked that they had to stop for a fresh coat of paint to be applied to where the iceberg scraped the hull. After all, the Titanic was “unsinkable,” they figured. “The improbability of such a thing ever happening was what staggered humanity,” Beesley wrote.
The phrase was originally “practically unsinkable” and was from an obscure engineering journal, On top of that, someone claims to have heard ship Capt. Edward John Smith say, “Even God himself couldn’t sink this ship,” said John Wilson Foster, a Queens University Belfast professor who wrote several Titanic books.
Initially, news reports told of selflessness of the rich men in Titanic’s first class who sacrificed themselves to allow women and children on the lifeboats, Biel said. While there were some brave rich passengers who nobly stepped aside to let others survive, the numbers show that the poorer you were, the less likely you were to live. Sixty percent of the first-class passengers survived, 42 percent of the second-class passengers survived and only 25 percent of the third-class, or steerage, passengers lived.
In the first few decades after the Titanic, the disparity in survival of the third-class passengers wasn’t mentioned. It wasn’t until Walter Lord revived the tale of the Titanic in his best-selling book, “A Night to Remember” (made into a movie in 1958), that the issue of class fairness was revisited, Biel said.
And by the time James Cameron’s epic came out in the 1990s, the story had gone from the helpful rich to the mostly despicable first-class passengers.
One of the enduring story lines of the Titanic is about music. The band on Titanic did play as the ship went down, although experts disagree on the song.
Survivor Archibald Gracie, in his popular account, described the lowering of lifeboats into the water with women and children, saying “it was now that the band began to play and continued while the boats were being lowered. We considered this a wise provision tending to allay excitement.
“I did not recognize any of the tunes, but I know they were cheerful and not hymns.”
And the band played on.
• James Cameron’s 3-D version of the movie opens in local theaters with a sneak preview at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Everett Stadium and Alderwood Stadium, and wider release Wednesday at Everett and Alderwood Stadium theaters, Woodinville, and several Seattle locations.
• “Titanic: The Concert” opens for four performances April 13 to 15 at The 5th Avenue theater, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle. A concert based on the 1997 Tony-Award-winning Broadway musical includes local performers and a full orchestra. Single tickets start at $19. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit www.5thavenue.org or call the box office at 206-625-1900.
• “Titanic: The Final Word”: (NatGeo, 8 p.m. April 9) James Cameron convenes an expert panel to detail how the ship sank.
• “Save the Titanic”: (NatGeo, 10 p.m. April 9) Bob Ballard on ship-saving efforts then and wreck-preserving efforts now.
• “Unsinkable Molly Brown”: 2:45 p.m. April 14 on Turner Classic Movies.
• “A Night to Remember”: 7 p.m. April 14 on Turner Classic Movies.
• “Titanic at 100: Mystery Solved”: (History, 8 p.m. April 15) Deep-sea robots chart the ship’s entire debris field. Titanic programs: (NatGeo, April 15, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.) Includes a five-hour “Rebuilding Titanic.”
Titanic on film
Here are a few of the many movies made about Titanic:
• “Titanic: Disaster in the Atlantic” (1929): British film with Madeleine Carroll.
• “Titanic” (1953): Stars Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb.
• “A Night to Remember” (1958): Unvarnished British account starring Kenneth More.
• “Unsinkable Molly Brown” (1964): Musical starring Debbie Reynolds.
• “Titanic: Death of a Dream” (1994): Documentary narrated by David McCallum.
• “Titanic” (1996): TV movie starring Catherine Zeta-Jones.
• “Titanic” (1997): James Cameron’s epic with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
• “Titanic: Birth of a Legend” (2005): Dramatized TV documentary about the building of the Titanic.